Socialist Alternative

European Farmer Protests Shake The Political Establishment

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Farmer protests have raged across Europe since last December, capturing headlines as farmers have descended onto Brussels in thousands of tractors, sprayed liquid manure at police, and forced governments to backpedal on their climate policies. Two consecutive EU summits were disrupted by farmer protests, which forced agriculture onto the agenda. Farmers in all but four countries in the European Union joined the protest wave, increasingly coordinating their efforts across borders. In February, Polish farmers called a 30-day general strike, blocking border crossings into Ukraine. And on June 3, Spanish and French farmers blocked roads connecting the two countries ahead of the European Parliament elections, now wrapping up.

Protesting farmers are not such a rare sight in Europe, especially over the last five years since EU officials announced drastic measures that put the onus on small farmers to combat climate change. Farmers’ protests in the Netherlands have been ongoing since October 2019. While still taking aim at climate policies that put an unbearable burden on small farmers, this current wave of protests is also in many ways a response to the war in Ukraine, which has loomed large over the lives of farmers, especially in countries bordering Ukraine.

After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU lifted trade barriers for Ukrainian agricultural produce. As Ukrainian grain and other food products flowed over the border, they stuck around in local markets rather than simply passing through. This brought down the prices that farmers could sell their produce for across the region, sparking widespread anger and protests of farmers and truckers across Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria in the spring of 2023.

At the time, Poland was one of Ukraine’s strongest allies under the far-right Law and Justice government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda, who supported the new trade measure. The farmers’ protests drove the Law and Justice Party to tone down their support for Ukraine ahead of the 2023 elections. The Law and Justice Party moved to block imports of Ukrainian grain, along with Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. In spite of it all, the Law and Justice party lost, handing parliamentary power to Donald Tusk of the pro-EU establishment right-wing Civic Platform. The farmer protests have continued, forcing Tusk’s government into a balancing act of seeking to address farmers’ concerns while also pledging to make Poland the “most reliable” ally of Ukraine in a year where it faces both local and European elections.

The current uprising has brought some of the most intense farmer protests the region has witnessed in half a century. The  protests grew rapidly across Europe from the end of 2023 through this spring, making use of the run-up to the European Parliament elections June 6th-9th as a strategic time to place maximum pressure on lawmakers. June 4th was set to be perhaps the biggest cross-country demonstration of farmers, with some organizers projecting 20,000 or even 100,000 farmers taking action on a single day. The turnout paled in comparison, with roughly 2,000 farmers and a bunch of far-right politicians turning up for a demonstration at the outskirts of Brussels this Tuesday.

As the EU election drew nearer, far-right parties increasingly attempted to paint themselves as the champions of farmers’ rights in order to win votes. Politicians from the establishment parties responded to the protests by granting some significant concessions to the farmers, out of fear of the far-right gaining votes in the elections. But the right-wing’s attempt to co-opt the movement has, at least for now, pushed away the the broader masses of farmers from taking part in ongoing protest, with some Europe’s largest farming associations and smaller farmer unions alike distancing themselves from the June 4 protest. The absence of most farmers organizations meant that the protest was dominated by far right-aligned groups such as the Farmers Defence Force, which has links to Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, France’s Coordination Rurale, which is closely linked to the National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, and Spain’s Plataforma 6F, which has close links to Vox.

Why Farmers Are Protesting

The ongoing wave of farmer protests is situated in the context of shifting public opinion around the war in Ukraine, but the issues facing farmers aren’t entirely caused by the war. Prices for energy, transportation, and fertilizer have soared since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but inflation was taking a toll even earlier. Like so many of us struggling with the cost of living these days and wages that don’t keep up, small farmers across Europe are facing rising costs to maintain their farms but are getting less and less for what they grow. It’s not uncommon for farms to operate at a loss – in France, one in ten farms loses money.

Farmers’ hardships are rooted in a deeper crisis of Europe’s agricultural system, in turn rooted in the economic and climate crises of the global capitalist system. The high interest rates central banks have implemented in an attempt to contain the looming global recession have made it more expensive to borrow farming equipment, leading many farmers to take on significant debt. Climate change has wreaked havoc on crop yields, with destructive weather events becoming the norm and 2024 on track to replace 2023 as the hottest year on record.

These challenges are set against the backdrop of decades of market-driven policies which have favored profits for massive corporate farms, mega-grocery chains, and agrochemical companies at the expense of farm workers and owners of small farms. Corporations have worked to drive down the prices they pay small farmers for their goods more and more, to a below-profit rate. Food production under capitalism is a race to the bottom, where farm workers employed by big agribusiness enterprises, often migrant workers, are tremendously exploited and underpaid, thus undercutting what family farms can sell their produce for.

On paper, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – which it spends about a third of its budget on – exists to provide all farmers with subsidies so that they can continue to operate despite big business competition, economic turmoil, or adverse weather. But in reality, 80 percent of the EU’s farm subsidies go to the largest 20 percent of farmers!

Farmers’ anger has been directed at the EU’s climate policy partly because in many cases, subsidies to farmers are further slashed if they can’t comply with new regulations. These regulations place the burden to address climate change most squarely on the backs of farmers who are already struggling economically, often requiring costly changes. New climate policies have also meant new bureaucratic oversight, requiring paperwork to be meticulously completed, with even small errors resulting in the loss of subsidies or large fines. Subsidies for fuel needed to operate farms have also been cut. This all spells out a situation where small farmers are locked into a spiral of low prices, increasing production costs, and mounting debt, meaning many farmers can’t afford to switch to more sustainable practices. 

Many farmers acutely feel the urgency of tackling climate change as it ravages their livelihoods and as they suffer the negative health effects of the pesticide use that Big Agriculture’s race to the bottom has demanded. A poll of French farmers from last February found that only 15% rejected the idea that a green transition is necessary. But farmers are protesting to demand the withdrawal of the EU’s “Green Deal” to fight climate change because it penalizes small farmers rather than forcing the biggest polluters in corporate agriculture to shoulder the burden of the green transition.

Farmers’ demands have varied from region to region. Those organizing international joint protests for June 4th have called for the review or overhaul of EU Green Deal laws around pesticides and land use, as well as the regulation of Ukrainian agricultural imports. More broadly, farmers have protested over the years for more stable prices which at minimum cover production costs, a more equitable redistribution of farm subsidies, and more support to enact sustainable agricultural practices.

Danger Of Co-optation By The Right Wing

Ahead of elections, the right wing latched on to the anger of the farmers across the continent, claiming they’re on their side and support their struggle. High inflation, souring public opinion about the war in Ukraine, record immigration, rising inequality, and the total failure of the political establishment to adequately address and of these issues has been very favorable terrain for the far-right to implement their favorite tactic of posing as an anti-establishment alternative who understands the concerns of ordinary people. Meanwhile, they scapegoat immigrants and other oppressed groups in order to distract from the fact that they still do the bidding of the ultra-wealthy just as much as the establishment.

Widespread anger and dissatisfaction with establishment parties and the broad failure of the left to seize the space that exists for a real alternative has led to a surge of popularity in far-right parties like the Alternative for Germany which in recent polls has been more popular on its own than all three of the parties in the current governing coalition combined. In recent opinion polls, far-right, right-wing populist, and anti-EU parties are projected to win majorities in many parliaments in Europe, including France, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia. Right-wing groupings are forecast to be the largest bloc in the EU parliament after the coming election.

The right positioning itself as the defender of farmers’ interests is nothing more than pandering for votes. In Germany, when farmers protested plans for agricultural subsidy cuts, Alternative for Germany joined the protests, conveniently ignoring the fact that their platform calls to abolish subsidies. France’s far-right National Rally, the party of Marine Le Pen, has described EU climate policies as the “punitive environmentalism” of an “urban elite.” Le Pen herself opposed pesticide use in farming until recently, doing a 180 in order to appeal to a group that wields a tremendous amount of influence in French society.

Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán addressed protesting farmers in January, saying that “it’s a European mistake that the voice of the people is not taken seriously. We have to find new leaders who really represent the people.” Orbán invested one billion dollars into creating Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a private college used to train right-wing nationalist cadres, which has actively organized some of the farmer protests. For all the lip service Orbán has paid to struggling farmers, many of Hungary’s massive land holdings that receive agricultural subsidies at the expense of small farmers are closely linked to Orbán.

Another thing the right wing has been incredibly disingenuous about is in its supposed opposition to war. As the war in Ukraine rages on at the same time as a widespread cost of living crisis, many working people across Europe increasingly feel that their governments are prioritizing aid to Ukraine over helping their own struggling citizens. If the left does not put forward a clear anti-war position, including a refusal to send weapons to Ukraine, the right is poised to have a field day and put forward nationalism and protectionism as the answers to what ails working people, blaming immigrants and foreign agricultural competition, while of course remaining silent about the role of agribusiness in destabilizing the lives of farmers and consumers alike.

Concurrent with the farmer protests, Viktor Orbán, who is one of the main Putin-sympathizing forces in the EU and NATO, has attempted to block EU aid to Ukraine. He ultimately was forced to back away from this position, signing off on both the EU’s aid package and Sweden’s entry into NATO. Having the farmer protests break out in Brussels during these negotiations was a way for Orbán to cynically jump on the movement to rebuild legitimacy.

Unlike in Hungary, Poland’s right-populist Law and Justice Party has backed Ukraine in the war, and was actually dragged by the farmer protests into taking a more critical stance toward military aid to Ukraine. Poland has been in a political deadlock since the last parliamentary election, with Donald Tusk taking over as prime minister while Andrzej Duda remains in power as president until the presidential elections next year. In spite of this deadlock, Tusk and Duda are united around military aid for Ukraine. Both Tusk and Duda, however, have had to give into at least some of the farmers’ demands even at the expense of alienating their ally Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine. This situation in Poland turns the popular portrayal of the far right being united around Russia and the forces of liberal democracy being united around the West on its head. Poland’s far right party is fully against Putin, but the objective crisis worsened by imperialist wars has created little tolerance for warmongering among working people in Poland, and has forced even the establishment into conflict with Ukraine. 

Response Of The Establishment

Under the pressure of the protests and concerns about losing elections, EU officials rolled back several of their climate policies that poised them to be the “Green Deal leader for the world.” The European Commission scrapped its proposal to halve pesticide use, cut a target for reducing agricultural emissions, gave farmers a temporary exemption from rules to set aside land for nature conservation, and  loosened regulations on things like crop rotation. EU officials reached a provisional agreement to extend their trade deal allowing free access to Ukrainian food products for another year, but also agreed to place caps on sensitive products such as poultry and eggs, including an “emergency brake” of national restrictions to protect domestic markets from cheaper Ukrainian imports. EU officials have also proposed placing tariffs on Russian and Belarusian grain.

In addition to the EU’s government making significant concessions, many EU member states have also reversed climate policies, such as France’s government canceling a tax increase on diesel fuel for farm vehicles and blocking EU free trade deals that farmers view as creating unfair competition, such as an EU-Canada deal and another with the South American Mercosur bloc. The French government’s actions threaten the deals on a EU-wide scale.

None of these moves address the root causes of the protests. Rather than forcing the rich to foot the bill of a green transition in agriculture, politicians seeking to calm mass anger in the months before they’re up for election have just rolled back these limited climate protections or paused existing laws, but have not changed the balance of who pays for the climate crisis – working people or corporations. 

The Way Forward

The fact that EU officials caved so quickly on key aspects of their supposed landmark climate legislation demonstrates the power of protest and strike action, which has cost businesses tens of millions of euros due to transportation delays. But the fact that these concessions don’t make much of a tangible difference in the daily lives of farmers shows that there’s a need to keep fighting for more. Right now, in the context of economic crisis and growing inter-imperialist struggle, politicians are more concerned with pouring billions of dollars into building up militaries than with bettering the lives of ordinary people. The space to win major economic concessions without seizing them from the billionaires is narrower than in past decades. That means that in order to really address the crisis of food production and general unaffordability, farmers and all working people will need to unite in even larger struggles that have the power to shake the capitalist system to its core. The power of the farmers’ struggle to spark broader protests is exactly what the ruling class and political establishment fear. 

The media has speculated that the protest movement in France, which has been particularly explosive, could be a new “yellow vest” moment, with the farmers’ plight connecting up with broader discontent around inflation and fatigue around the war in Ukraine. The 2019 Yellow Vest movement in France initially began as a protest against president Macron’s environmental regulations but moved in a broad anti-capitalist direction. 

The right, for all its attempts to co-opt protest, offers no real criticism of the system perpetuating our misery. The working class, however, is connecting the dots about the common cause they share with farmers. A January survey found that 87% of French people supported the farmers. Nearly eight in ten people backed the farmers’ demands in Poland, according to a poll by the Institute of Market and Social Research. Many climate activists have joined the protests, calling for a just transition that rewards rather than penalizes sustainable farming. 

Too often, the struggle of farmers to carve out a living in a system stacked against them is painted in the media as a selfish calculation which puts their own livelihoods over the long-term habitability of the planet. The climate movement is portrayed as being at odds with the interests of farmers. We’re fed false dichotomies of rural workers vs. city dwellers, or climate vs. jobs. These are convenient narratives to promote if your goal is keeping youth climate protests and farmer uprisings divided, but in reality they have a lot in common – urgently addressing what is making our lives increasingly unlivable, and fighting to ensure the burden of climate chaos and green transition isn’t carried on the backs of ordinary people.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of European family farms disappear, replaced by corporate farms. We need a just transition that provides small farmers with sufficient support and funding to implement sustainable practices, and provides workers in polluting industries like fossil fuel extraction with options in a massively-expanded clean energy sector, built by taxing the rich, not by cutting the jobs or wages of workers. 

Climate and the livelihoods of working people will always be put at odds by the capitalist system. For the billionaires planning their next investments in big agriculture, green tech, and beyond, any environmental regulations – incredibly limited as they always are – are cynically used merely as new avenues to accumulate more profits, driving the creation of new markets, new “green” products to sell, while really just perpetuating the increase of carbon emissions in the process. Climate change won’t be addressed by selling everyone an election car. We need a massive expansion of high-quality green public transit. We don’t need little tweaks here and there to farming practices. We need to take food production and distribution out of the hands of corporations and into public ownership, organized under democratic control of the whole of society, with living wages for farmers, affordable food for all, and sustainable farming practices as our goals, not profits for shareholders.

One of the most polluting industries on the plant is the military. The only way to end the climate and economic havoc that the war on Ukraine has unleashed on European farmers, ordinary people across the globe, and most importantly the Ukrainian working class, is to end the war. Socialist Alternative calls for the end of the war, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the right of Ukraine to exist as an independent nation free from domination by imperialism of any kind, opposition to NATO, and for the right of self-determination of all minorities and regions within Ukraine.

Neither continued arms shipments from Western imperialism nor “solidarity lanes” for agricultural products will lead the way out of this protracted military conflict. We urgently need to grow a global anti-war movement, active in the streets and our workplaces, with solidarity protests and strike action as our most powerful weapon to bring an end to the war. In a time of increased militarism, with Israel’s genocidal war bearing down on Gaza at the same time that lives have been upended in Ukraine and Russia for over two years now, a powerful, organized, global anti-war movement grows more urgently-needed by the day.

We need to get organized, with more international coordination and democratic decision-making structures for the anti-war struggle. Right now, the right wing is unfortunately often filling that space more than the left. But the example of Germany is instructive for how working people can come together to oppose this dangerous trend. While the far-right Alternative for Germany party has gained tremendously in popularity, their rise has been met with Germany’s largest-ever protest in opposition. We urgently need a left-wing anti-war movement in Europe and globally. Only this can put an end to the war-mongering of the political establishment and the far-right threat.

Ultimately, there will be no way out of continued war, climate catastrophe, and poverty on the basis of capitalism – it’s a system that relies on propping up the military-industrial complex and other massively polluting industries, in an insatiable search for profits for a small group of billionaires. The rest of us have the ability to change the trajectory of our planet’s future and the conditions of current and future generations for the better, but only by taking the biggest polluters head-on, the real “out-of-touch elites”, the billionaire class. Working people – whether farmers, teachers, students, computer programmers, or fossil fuel workers – must unite in a struggle to replace this vicious capitalist order with a new type of society, a socialist world, dictated by the needs of humanity and the planet’s continued livability, not billionaire greed.

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